“When Rabbit said, ‘Honey or condensed milk with your bread?’ he was so excited that he said, ‘Both,’ and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, ‘But don’t bother about the bread, please.’”—A. A. Milne, Winnie-The-Pooh
Let’s begin with the universally acknowledged truth that it is never too young to introduce children to Winnie-The-Pooh. The language is rich yet accessible, and the plot contains no shocks or surprises that are better reserved for a mature understanding. It is a perfect appetizer for the formative mind. But having settled that, we come to the fascinating discussion of how to develop good taste in children without exposing them to ideas or plot twists before they’re fully equipped to appreciate such. How soon is too soon to expose young and developing minds to great ideas?
My husband and I had a spirited conversation on this very topic the night we met. We pondered the dilemma of whether there was such a thing as too early of an age to introduce children to great classics. He thought not: he watched the animated Hobbit movie at a very young age, then had the book read to him; for him, it sparked a lifelong interest in the books.
For my part, my dad read Pride and Prejudice aloud to us when I was perhaps seven or eight (definitely shy of ten), and while I didn’t fully get all the humorous dialogue, I certainly understood the plot well enough. (Spoiler: He’s a scoundrel! Don’t trust that handsome face!)
When I re-discovered Jane Austen at age sixteen, I was inclined to feel a bit disappointed that I had remembered enough of the plot to unmask the surprises for me. Did having the story read to me at so young an age “ruin” it for me? Perhaps, but then perhaps it gave me an early appreciation for Austen’s fine wit and irony, and it certainly expanded my vocabulary. If I hadn’t been exposed to her writing so early, would I still have become such a fan, and would I therefore even have cared if the plot wasn’t spoiled for me?
In my experience, exposing children to great writing cements high expectations for literature in their minds. It gives them an appetite for good writing and helps them overcome a default predisposition toward easy-to-read “twaddle,” as Charlotte Mason termed the bland, boring, watered-down children’s literature of her day.
Cultivating a discerning palate is not limited to the intellectual sphere. I’ve come to realize how drastically we can shape our children’s tastes simply by expecting them to like something, and giving them repeated opportunities to try it.
For instance, I used to hoard good chocolates and fob off the inferior stuff on my children, thinking that since they couldn’t tell the difference anyway, why should I waste the (expensive) genuine article? But, in fact, they would learn to appreciate the good stuff if I gave them the opportunity to cultivate a discriminating palate.
Waiting until children demonstrate that they are ready for something, or until we think they can fully appreciate it, is backwards. (I’m not talking about potty training here!) They will learn to fully appreciate things because we give them the chance and because we teach them that they should like it. Now, by my fifth child, I’ve learned to raise my expectations of what tots will like, and he’s the youngest one by far to enjoy—actually request and gobble down!—fresh cucumber slices, raw onion chunks, and other atrocities things I didn’t appreciate at his age.
Just as I give my kids an occasional junk food treat, so I give them the chance to relax their minds with light, easy reading that isn’t particularly educational or inspirationally productive (although I still call it “cotton candy for the brain”). As long as they’re getting an ample dose of good solid reading, I don’t mind if they unwind with junk reading on their own time. They still enjoy and appreciate quality books because of their early exposure to solid writing.
Every week or two, when we come home from the library laden with several dozen new books, I know we’re in for a quiet day. In fact, I need to make sure all our daily chores are completed before we leave the house, because once we return with all the new books, our house turns into the Reading Room. The younger ones (who can’t yet read words) sprawl on the floor looking at Bill Peet and Robert McCloskey.
Occasionally I need to check in and pry the older ones’ minds away from Encyclopedia Brown and shove it in the direction of Lewis Carroll and Marguerite Henry. But overall their judgment is sound. Long years of proper guidance are finally paying off.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images by Rose Focht.